Imaging Dissent: Towards Becoming a Common Subject

Werker Collective

Between 1844 and 1846 in London, just after the First Industrial Revolution, W. Henry Fox Talbot published a book captivatingly titled The Pencil of Nature. In it, he described the potential uses of the recently invented negative-positive photographic process, such as its capacity to create evidence to be used in court and to produce prints of plant leaves for scientific study. But Fox Talbot also introduced the social aspects of photography, like portraiture and the representation of daily life, and noted the unequivocally amateur vocation of the medium, given its near-universal ease of operation.

Less like a pencil of nature and more like a shovel of extraction, the invention of photography paralleled the emergence of other technologies in the nineteenth century that accelerated the speed with which natural resources were appropriated for the accumulation of capital. Water and steam provided the relentless motion that structured the lives of the working class. In 1830, the workday ranged from ten to sixteen hours in a six-day working week; no time was left for the working class for leisure outside the polluted cities, nor for self-organization. The bourgeoisie deployed the technology of photography to develop an archive of “truth”1 and expand its privileges over the world’s populations, natural resources, and biodiversity.2 This instrumentalization occurred in tandem with the instrumentalization of the bodies of the working class. New technologies of production developed alongside infrastructures of knowledge that legitimized the authority of the systems in power and reduced the capacity of the working class to revolt.

In the 1920s, several worker organizations were founded around the world, due in part to the progressive implementation of an eight-hour workday. They opposed elitism, competition, and bourgeois ideology, and combined self-education and political activism with leisure, sports, and enjoyment of nature. Many, like the Naturfreundejugend in Germany, abolished gender segregation and adopted practices of naturism.3 A sense of international worker solidarity emerged through their collective actions: agitprop theatre, worker sports, social hiking, rallies, strikes, and worker-photography. Amateurism became the model of cultural production for the workers’ movement, seeking to challenge the hegemonic capitalist “common sense”4 that maintained dominant social structures. Instead of profit, the amateur established a relationship to the world based on curiosity, determination, love, and solidarity. The figure of the amateur challenged the hierarchy between intellectual and manual workers, uniting the social body through a set of creative practices.

Worker-photographers learned to master the technical aspects of photography and, more importantly, to develop practices of image analysis and media critique. In the industrialized world, image production proliferated in improvised darkrooms in domestic spaces and union houses affiliated with communist organizations. Traditional notions of authorship and authenticity were set aside and replaced by a collective political interest. As materials were often exchanged and republished, groups of worker-photographers formed an international network and a shared archive of resistance.5 They constructed an environment of images and documents around the bodily needs of the worker; care work and reproductive and housing issues were addressed as much as self-organization and leisure activities. In 1933 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party assumed power and banned the activities of the worker-photographers in Germany. Many members of communist and socialist organizations were arrested and interned in concentration camps, and much of their archive was destroyed or lost. In the postwar United States, the disarticulation of a self-organized working class continued under McCarthyism, with growing anti-worker sentiment during the Cold War. Meanwhile, in the Soviet bloc, the implementation of strict control over the press professionalized photojournalism. The direct engagement of amateur workers in the production of images and documents of real life came to an end.

A second wave of radical documentary emerged on both sides of the Iron Curtain beginning in the late 1960s. In 1979, the pamphlet The Worker-Photographer, published by the London collective Photography Workshop, included an editorial entitled “The Hidden History of Worker Photographers,” which called for the reconstitution of the lost archive of the worker-photography movement. Inspired by the worker-photographers from the 1920s to visualize their struggles, self-organized action groups, associations, and community centers adopted collaborative methods of image production. Fifty years on, the subjects depicted in the images of the first movement were enhanced by feminist and early postcolonial theory. The aim remained the same: to mobilize society through self-representation.6 In Berlin, artist Dieter Hacker initiated the 7. Produzentengalerie in 1971, a noncommercial exhibition space dedicated to the analysis and renegotiation of the social and political function of art. Work, family, childhood, sexuality, and eroticism were addressed through a critical and provocative questioning of vernacular photography and the family album. Hacker’s initiative supplemented the more dogmatic leftist approaches of the first movement with gender and identity politics, emphasizing the collective body formed by the working class—one that is human, animal, sexual, queer, and in contact with nature.

Following the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, a pattern would repeat worldwide: budget cuts affected educational institutions, health care, social housing, and (leftist) culture. Community centers and associations suffered, and financial asphyxiation continued under a new bureaucracy designed to regulate and control the activities taking place in community centers. Radical documentary groups that had always rejected public funding persisted for some years,7 but many other initiatives ceased to exist or became depoliticized soon after new policies were implemented. Parallel to this, a conservative campaign was orchestrated to delegitimize working-class self-organization and demonize the poor.8 Charity replaced the state as a guarantor of basic human needs. Individualism, consumerism, and private property won the ideological battle for hegemony over “common sense” in the Western world. The Soviet Union was dismantled.

Contemporary processes of mechanization, robotization, and digitalization of labor have blurred the division between work and life yet again. It is increasingly difficult to capture an accurate image of what work looks like today. Most factories prohibit photography on site, while training cameras on workers to optimize their productivity. Domestic, reproductive, and care work—the labor that involves the maintenance and reproduction of our bodies—persists as an endless source of oppressive, invisible, informal, and unpaid work. Those who are remunerated for it are often racialized and gendered migrant workers who face precarious working conditions.9 The “gig economy,” which drives the labor market further into the pits of casualization by reconceptualizing labor as an “event,”10 has become predominant in fields like food delivery, hired transport, and care work. Creative work—always subjected to the infrastructures of freelance contracting—has been devalued. Potential alignments between the bodies that do cognitive cultural work, the “gig” economy, and visa-tied domestic work have yet to be mobilized. Work doesn’t begin, because it never stops.

The internet has nonetheless opened new possibilities for the articulation of a collective archive. Inspired by rhizomatic structures, autonomous movements in the early 2000s managed to challenge the server-client logic. P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing platforms enhanced amateur communities in different fields and enabled “copyleft” modes of working. Sampling and reproduction technologies became cheaper, thus actualizing the modernist notion of montage. But the tradition of “the pencil of nature,” rather than elevating amateurism, has once again favored copyrighted image banks and search engines that monitor our creativity. Social media—by definition a collectively generated archive—has rendered life an advertisement and capitalized on every aspect of our individual bodies. The aesthetic of social media mimes the mainstream glamour media that is used to validate and indulge the lifestyles of the dominant class, which has controlled and shaped this aesthetic since the very beginning of the illustrated press. Online creativity is delimited to likes, subscribers, followers, and sponsorships. This form of creativity reinforces repressive structures, as the predominant aesthetic of social media rewards the most successful 1 percent of “content creators” with wealth and riches. For the rest of social-media users, the ambition is to possess an aesthetic and lifestyle that corresponds with the monoculture of the elite.

We have seen in recent history that social media has great potential to mobilize the collective body,11 especially when online and offline collectivities invigorate each other to demand equal rights, equal pay, and respect. Yet our body is an archive of gestures, of “photographic” drawings—an ecosystem of its own that is also enmeshed with the biosphere. Just as our bodies host millions of living organisms, they host millions of cultural artifacts. Archiving documents, publications, and images, and creating new ones to document our current struggles, are ways to access the collective memory that shapes our individual and communal body. With their cameras, the worker-photographers of the 1920s created the first international archive of class struggle. The second wave in the 1970s aimed to reconstitute the lost archive of their predecessors and reactivate it with their own struggles. Today, the articulation of our own counter-archives of labor, in solidarity with other oppressed bodies—human and nonhuman—seems a necessary step towards becoming a common subject.12 Extraction and exhaustion must be replaced by an ecosystem of respect and care in balance with other forms of life. The current paradigm of the distribution of knowledge and “common sense” must be challenged by an “infrastructure of dissent”13 based on the ideals of the amateur: curiosity, determination, love, and solidarity. There must be a DIY infrastructure to reconfigure our collective and individual bodies that have been shattered by capitalist greed, restoring them to a state of balance with nature.

—Werker Collective

Werker Collective (a.k.a. Werker) is a long-term multifaceted project concerning photography and labor, initiated in Amsterdam in 2009. The collective started as an editorial project, releasing ten issues of Werker Magazine. The group has since focused on developing working methodologies based on counter-archiving, self-representation, self-publishing, image analysis, and collective learning processes. Through several projects over the last ten years, Werker has created an international community of allies, exploring notions of collective authorship, queerness, reactivating oppressed histories, and worker solidarity. During 2020–21, Werker Collective will be in residence at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam.

1 An “archive” of truth, stemming from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded. “The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law. On account of their publicly recognised authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house, or employee’s house), that official documents are filed.” Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no 2 (1995).

2 Donna Haraway states in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women that “Twentieth-century people are used to the idea that all photographs are constructs in some sense, and that the appearance that a photograph gives of being a 'message without a code', that is, what is pictured being simply there, is an effect of many layers of history, including prominently, technology.” Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991), 221.

3 With the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, certain naturist ideologists endorsed eugenics and defended the use of forced sterilization on individuals who exhibited so-called “anti-social behavior.”

4 A term coined by Antonio Gramsci to describe the active maintenance of the status quo through cultural production.

5 As exemplified by the documentary Borinage by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck (Le Club de l’Ecran, Brussels 1934), which uses material from the newsreel America Today & The World in Review by Leo Seltzer (Film and Photo League of the Workers International Relief, USA, 1932–34). Both films are discussed later in this article.

6 An emblematic example is the CCPPO, an association in Besançon, France that invited Chris Marker to help activate a worker-run film initiative called the Medvedkine Groups. Simultaneously, in the Soviet bloc, cine clubs were organized within factories. Workers had access to film equipment and managed to create critical narratives around gender, sexuality, media, work, and family. A selection of these films from Poland can be seen in the Enthusiasts Archive, which has just been integrated into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

7 Such as Photography Workshop Ltd. from London, 1974–92, led by Jo Spence and Terry Dennet. This group actively engaged in the politics of photography and class struggle in the UK from a historical-materialist perspective, training amateurs in photography, image critique, and the importance of self-representation.

8 Described by Owen Jones in Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso, 2011), 37: “To admit that some people are poorer than others because of the social injustice inherent in our society would require government action […]. Claiming that people are largely responsible for their circumstances facilitates the opposite conclusion.”

9 Self-organized unions for migrant domestic workers like The Voice of Domestic Workers in London, Sindillar in Barcelona, and Territorio Doméstico in Madrid campaign for domestic and care workers to have the same rights as other workers. They demand respect and recognition for domestic work.

10The Gig Economy: New Name for Old Exploitation,” Revolutionary Communist Group, December 7, 2016.

11 Some examples include the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and the current wave of insurrections worldwide.

12 “Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if ‘commoning’ has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan ‘no commons without community.’ But ‘community’ not intended as a gated reality, a grouping of people joined by exclusive interests separating them from others, as with community formed on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility; to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals. Feminism and the politics of the common in an era of primitive accumulation.” Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2012), 145.

13 This concept comes from author Alan Sears.

January 15, 2020